20 June - 17 July 2014
There is something intensely classical about the photographs of Andrew Bruce. Set against velvet-like blackness, the smooth human torso stands out, stark in its delicacy. Muscles and veins ripple out against the darkness, pale and illuminated. Yet, what dominates the picture is the animal – utterly resplendent, its coat a dance of delicate colours, whether the dappled back of a deer or the distinct line between a fox’s white underbelly and the vibrant rust of its body. Other works, such as Interlude and Hiatus, evocative portraits of birds, capture a sense of stillness. The camera captures wings spread out mid-flight, each curl of a wingtip crying out of life and movement, yet they are frozen, suspended in a state of being and non-being. “My work is an attempt to articulate our disorientation being in the world today; being a part of nature, essentially native to it yet unavoidably separate from it,” explains the artist.
Bruce’s use of chiaroscuro gives his works a striking quality, often placing his subject against a darker background, lifting it out into the bright focus of the cameras lens. In images that contain his own bare torso, his face is never fully shown and he remains anonymous – he is Man, rather than a man. In spite of this, they retain a classical quality to them, a subverted portrait of pastoral beauty or Bacchanalian pleasure. Take, for example, a work in which Bruce embraces a fallen doe, his back to the camera, staring into the blackness – this image fills the frame, lifted out of an inky background. The lack of any sort of adornment - this is no boy holding a lamb and there are no bunches of grapes or tumbling ivy – further serves to highlight the painterly aspect of the photograph, for one cannot help but be drawn to the familiarity of the image, seeking out what is different. “It’s important that it is me in the photograph, for they are self-portraits – I carry the weight of the animal,” he says. “But by concealing my identity, it forces the viewer to think more about the performed nature of these photographs. I welcome the ambiguity – I am the comforter, or perhaps I am being comforted, or am I the hunter? It’s for the viewer to decide, but I suppose I am all of these things. There is something so powerful and visceral about seeing one alive being next to a dead one, the power of that touch, of skin against fur or feather.”
Bruce works with a 10x8 camera, which allows him to create large-scale images of startling detail, spending hours setting up each image before carefully producing his prints by hand in the darkroom. “That sense of touch and physicality is important to me, it’s present in everything I do,” he says. “A large-scale image allows for an incredible level of clarity – every hair, every feather, is shown in more detail than you would see if you were looking at it with your own eyes. The camera’s gaze is unflinching – it does not look away at the sight of blood or the scent of death. The more detail, the more intense the image, and the more intimate a space you create.” Other works, using small format cameras, are intentionally blurry and grainy, with Bruce seeking to create a distance between the viewer and the animal, underlining our disconnection with the natural world.
The shock comes upon the realisation that, in spite of glinting eyes and supple limbs (indeed, too supple, and, on closer inspection, one realises they are rather limp) many – though not all – of the animals presented in Bruce’s photographs are dead– victims of either nature or, far too often, man, flung by the road side after crunching into a speeding car. At the heart of the matter are the uncomfortable questions that Bruce’s photographs raise. Cloaked in beautiful lighting and picturesque poses, works such as Grace force us to confront awkward realisations. Here, a fox is suspended, both figuratively and literally – for it is dead, captured in time, but the viewer also becomes aware of a multitude of fine strings that hold the animal in place. It becomes a ragged puppet, carefully washed of all the mud and dirt that had become its shroud by the side of the road, yet all the worse for wear. Its pose, evoking that of a jumping, hunting fox, imbues it with an unbearable sense of sadness. Bruce works a lot with the image of the fox, as an animal historically respected, yet hunted throughout the centuries and today regarded an urban pest. “I think the fox embodies so much of our confusion with the idea of nature, it holds a mirror up to us,” muses Bruce. While Bruce often uses pieces of string to suspend animals, this is the only work in which they are not hidden by careful lighting. “In this particular work, I wanted the strings to be visible so that the fox is suspended, but it’s a kind of a lame suspense – the presence of the strings brings with it an awkwardness and I’m interested in the way suspending the animal decontextualises it, reminds us that this is a photograph that suspends time.” Other portraits of animals, such as those of the birds, focus on a tension “whereby the suspension is simultaneously mundane and spectacular,” he explains. Capturing them against a starry night sky, they take on a almost religious aspect. “In the case of Hiatus, I was thinking a lot about Bill Viola’s work The Crossing,” he says, “and all of the implications of water, the symbolism of cleansing, to create something with a feeling of being transcendental.”
What Bruce manages to capture is the vulnerability of nature – that disconnection between us and the natural world that results in a melancholy distance. These portraits of animals take on an almost saintly, religious. They are otherworldly, sad, yet beautiful, like mythological beings, or storybook visions. He illuminates nature, suspends it, and forces us to look at it up close. Those that are dead feel alive, and those that are alive are put on pause, a wing beat, a heartbeat, frozen in time for us to examine. In the pause between taking a breath we can hear our own silence and the quiet of the void. “Some philosophers have stated that the key difference between humans and animals is the awareness that we, as humans, have of death; the human condition, so it occurs to me that there is an extremely meaningful discourse to be had between the human and the animal about death,” he says. Within the photographic works of Bruce, this is what the viewer is presented with – an unwavering, hauntingly beautiful elegy to the natural world around us – at once so close, and yet so far removed.